The future of the notorious prison camp at Guantanamo Bay was in genuine doubt last night after the US Supreme Court delivered a striking blow to the administration of George Bush and undermined his way of dealing with prisoners from the so-called war on terror.
In a powerful rejection of the administration's efforts to place its actions outside the normal judicial process and the reach of international law, the court declared that the President's use of military tribunals to try prisoners was unconstitutional because they did not satisfy the requirements of the Geneva Conventions.
Of equal importance, the court also opened the way for each of the 450 prisoners held at the prison-and presumably at other US bases - to have their day in court and to challenge America's basis for holding them.
"This is a great victory," said Clive Stafford Smith, a British lawyer who represents 36 of the prisoners. "It means the end of Guantanamo, effectively. It means that anyone held around the world has the right to justice. It's a great day for the rule of law in the US."
Three Britons held at Guantanamo for two years before being released without charge, Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed, said in a statement: "We are ecstatic at today's outcome. This is another step in our collective efforts to see that those we left behind are treated fairly under international law."
Last night the immediate impact of the ruling on Guantanamo itself was unclear. Mr Bush said he would examine whether the military commissions could be reconstituted, adding: "The American people need to know that the ruling, as I understand it, won't cause killers to be put out on the street. I'm not going to jeopardise the safety of the American people' I will protect the people and at the same time conform with the findings of the Supreme Court."
But legal experts said both the court's views on the commissions and the implications for prisoners were clear. Joe Margulies, a lecturer at the University of Chicago law school, said the Government would have to defend in court its holding of detainees. He said: "The Government has never done that - if it does not do that it means it will have to let them go."
Others said that by maintaining that the president's actions are subject to limits, even at a time of war, the court also challenged the government's justification for such actions as secret wiretapping. Michael Ratner of the Centre for Constitutional Rights, said: "What this says to the administration is that you can no longer decide arbitrarily what you want to do with people. …